Two years ago, Make a Wish sent Katie Vandrilla to London to meet actor Johnny Depp.
Now, she’s giving back.
On Dec. 27, she’s holding a fundraiser for Make A Wish at the seven Friendly’s Restaurants in Newington, Hartford, Wethersfield, Bristol, Windsor Locks, East Windsor and Unionville.
Vandrilla, 22, is in remission from Leukemia, she says as she knocks on wood. Doctors are monitoring her.
It was six years ago when doctors diagnosed her with the disease. Vandrilla was a junior at Berlin High School at the time, participating in Upbeat, writing for the school paper and acting in the drama club.
That year, she was taking classes like AP Biology.
Then, she started feeling “really crappy.”
When she went to the doctor, the diagnosis came back -- cancer. She needed to drop everything and start treatments.
At first, the severity of the disease didn’t register for the 16-year-old.
She told the doctor the school play was in two weeks. She had to act.
“No, you’re dropping out of the play,” the doctor told her.
Vandrilla went from a busy high school student to focusing on fighting cancer.
“It was hard to go from that to nothing,” Vandrilla said.
She learned she qualified to have a wish granted through Make a Wish and she couldn’t believe it.
“No,” she said, “That’s for sick children.”
She thought the organization was to help children who had a terminal illness.
“I had no intention of dying,” she said.
She learned Make a Wish no longer grants wishes to just children with terminal illnesses, but to children who have life-threatening diseases.
Vandrilla told Make a Wish she wanted to meet Johnny Depp.
Ever since “Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of The Black Pearl” came out in 2003 and Depp portrayed the flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow, Vandrilla drew inspiration from Depp as an actor and a person.
Depp is chameleon in his roles, she said.
“He always looks different. He always sounds different.”
Vandrilla waited four years to meet the actor. Depp’s schedule is so busy, she explained.
Finally, the call came. Depp was filming the movie “Dark Shadows” in London.
Vandrilla’s family traveled to her college, University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, on a Thursday to tell her the news.
Vandrilla wears a charm bracelet and when she was going to meet Depp, she planned to place a bead which read “Dreams really do come true” on the bracelet.
At that visit, her mother handed her the bead.
Vandrilla didn’t make the connection.
“You ready?” her mom said.
Vandrilla traveled to London and met Depp on Sept. 19, 2011.
Fittingly, it was Talk Like A Pirate Day.
While on set of “Dark Shadows” Vandrilla met Director Tim Burton -- her favorite director -- and was able to talk to the other people creating the movie.
Her impression of Depp?
“He doesn’t think highly of himself,” she said.
Depp is a “genuine guy” and while he “doesn’t understand it,” he’s met most of his heroes, so he’s respectful of people who want to meet him.
“And his eyes are gorgeous!”
Today, Vandrilla is in her first year teaching Chemistry at Middletown High School. She is grateful for everything and she wants to give back.
She was talking to one of her friends who works as a manager at Friendly’s and the conversation turned to the restaurant’s fundraising program.
Vandrilla, who had worked at Friendly’s, heard about the fundraiser, but never thought about it. Then, she made the connection. She would hold a fundraiser for Make a Wish.
Margo Bard, manager at the Newington Friendly’s, said the store hosts a few fundraisers every month. The store had four scheduled for December, and three fundraisers were held at the store in November.
While Vandrilla looked to organize a fundraiser at just the Newington Friendly’s, another manager at the restaurant organized the larger event, Bard said.
Friendly’s provides vouchers to the organization that invite people to come eat at the restaurant. When the patrons pay the bill, they present the vouchers. At the end of the night, the bills from the patrons with vouchers are added up and 20 percent of the bottom line is donated to the organization.
The fundraiser for Make a Wish is unique because it involves the seven Friendly’s franchises in the area -- only the third time she has seen such a fundraiser happen, Bard said.
For Vandrilla, the lead-up to Dec. 27, the day when patrons can eat in, take out, buy a cake and present the voucher involves a lot of advertising, getting the word out.
“I can’t repay Make a Wish,” she said, “but I want to let people know what things they’ve done for me.”